The perpetual motion of choreographer Amrita Hepi

“Choreographing is a lot like editing. I’m here to remove the laziness, refine the necessary and give physical to the idea, the thought.” – Amrita Hepi

Read an excerpt below of Amrita Hepi’s interview with Winnie Siulolovao Dunn, a Tongan-Australian writer, editor and proud member of Sweatshop Western Sydney Literacy Movement. The full article appears in The Saturday Paper, originally published on Saturday 30 March.

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When I arrive at the cobblestone alleyway outside the side entrance to the Royal Academy of Dance in Sydney’s Darlinghurst, it is raining. Amrita Hepi opens the door: “Aye, sis, come in!” Her accent is classic Townsville out-there and I love it. Her tone reminds me of all my Tongan aunties and sisters sitting on ngatu and cackling, “Sai ke tau ‘ilo”, a turn of phrase used sarcastically in my family that means, “Good to know.”

The Bundjalung/Ngāpuhi dancemaker, choreographer, writer and advocate leads me into a white-brick ballet studio and introduces Zachary Lopez, Ivey Wawn and Rhiannon Newton, whom she has been choreographing for months in the lead-up to her show for The National at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Alongside 23 other artists, all engaging with the concept of the political, personal and poetic spheres between chaos and control, Amrita’s work, The Tender, is set to be performed on March 31, April 24 and June 1. Representatives from various major galleries will be coming today to see how far the work has progressed.

In The Tender, ropes are a metaphor of mixed meaning. They have been used as an agent of violence and restraint within racial oppression, but also as a tool of resistance, connecting marginalised people. The act of skipping uses ropes to move with and alongside dancers, bringing multilayered object and human together in nuanced ways. In the centre of the studio floor, I watch the dancers stretching on two deep blue skate ramps. I take a seat in the corner. Amrita has joined the stretching, too. Her red socks match the skipping ropes. Her navy blue adidas trackies blend into the ramp beneath her. Everything in this studio – from the walls, to the props, to the clothes on moving bodies – is connected and I realise Amrita has made it this way.

Having known her for two years, I understand dancing has always been Amrita’s mana. Born in Townsville, she moved to Sydney because her mum needed support networks that were unavailable to her in Queensland. Amrita danced in her childhood living room to classic pop stars such as Beyoncé and Michael Jackson, while also being exposed to Māori, corroboree and other South Pacific movements during her upbringing. Over noodle soup in Cabramatta one time, I remember her telling me how her formal dance training began when she was nine years old, in a community centre for kids in her neighbourhood.

“I would poke my head up to the window, try to memorise the movements in my head and then I’d run off to hide and practise it on my own,” she said. “I swear, once every session the dance teacher would come out and ask if I wanted to join in and I’d be like, ‘Nah. No. No way.’ But I was so keen that Mum had to enrol me.”

The dinner hum in Cabramatta got louder but Amrita continued: “Then I was in high school picking the latest tracks I wanted to jam to and practising over and over and then showing off with my friends and it was like we were doing something together that we all knew. It was then I realised that I wanted dancing to be a part of my life, so I studied at NAISDA [dance college on the NSW Central Coast] and Alvin Ailey in New York. I lived in New York and learnt so much over there, but it’s real expensive.” She raised her eyebrows at me, “But hey, least I got to say I did my time in the Big Apple.” She laughs to herself, a warm belly laugh, and I giggle along too, though I’m unsure why. Maybe New York was so hectic it was funny.

I’m always impressed when Amrita tells me all the places she’s been – even just for her job. I spend 98 per cent of my life in Western Sydney. I know we both come from an ancestral lineage of navigators, who took on the ocean and always found islands in the middle of the deep Pacific blue, but Mounty County sticks to me like used gum on a new pair of TNs.

I once asked Amrita if the pace of her life ever gets exhausting.

She smiled, the corners of her lips reaching up towards her eyes. “It’s a privilege to travel but I think I enjoy it more than other art-makers. Connecting with another dancer who is also living a kind of in-between life is always very special to me because I think there’s an understanding of sacrifice to the craft,” she said.

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In everything we do, we acknowledge that we live on Aboriginal land and constantly learn from the wisdom of our First Peoples.

Where we are and the history that precedes us informs how we work and how we move forward.